Game studies @ SWTPCA (Part 1)

Today is day 3 — for me day 2 — of the Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association and American Culture Association Meeting in Albuquerque. Yesterday and today in slots in which there were no philosophy stream panels I have being going to game studies panels. I know nothing about game studies qua academic discipline, but I do know about games.

I’ve gone to some interesting panels. Yesterday I saw a panel with three speakers: Harrison Gish, University of California, Los Angeles “Developing Transitional Space in Classic Games”, Jennifer deWinter, Worcester Polytechnic Institute “:), or On Emotion in Game Studies”, and Kevin Moberly, St. Cloud State University “Preemptive Strikes: Ludology, Narratology, and Deterrence in Computer Game Studies”.

Now is the time to move on if you could care less about games, and click read more if you want to geek out with me.

Gish talked about transitional space in older games, particularly Mario 3 (everyone remembers that right?). But having seen the extensive Starcraft 3 demos at Blizzcon in October it was that game that was on my mind. For those of you who haven’t seen any video, the “choose a mission” space in the single play campaigns for SC3 has become a massive first-person space in its own right, complete with NPC interaction and multiple areas. It is of course not the first time we have seen this sort of thing; I remember it in numerous flight simulators played by the spouse type person. But Gish was talking about the ways in which transitional space merges with play space in newer games in the Mario genre, such as the Zelda series as well as newer Mario games. At the same time that kind of space is getting more and more attention in what is perhaps the most anticipated RTS ever.

deWinter’s talk concerned the supposed holy grail of game development: evoking emotion in the player. She noted that when people talk about this goal they always talk about a relatively fixed set of “chick flick” emotions: love, joy, sadness, loss. In contrast, the recent DGD2 survey (which probably suffers from some methodological problems but what the hell, its what we have to go with) gives the following as the top ten emotions experienced by actual game players:

  • 10. Bliss (3.26)
  • 9. Relief (3.28)
  • 8. Naches (3.57) (the emotion of pride in the accomplishments of one’s students or children)
  • 7. Surprise (3.59)
  • 6. Fiero (3.89) (the feeling of triumph over adversity)
  • 5. Curiosity (3.92)
  • 4. Excitement (4.02)
  • 3. Wonderment (4.07)
  • 2. Contentment (4.09)
  • 1. Amusement (4.28)

Yes, yes, all the philosophers are wondering whether all of these are emotions, and what an emotion is anyway, and how we might distinguish the emotions from other sorts of attitudes. I’m particularly bothered by curiosity myself. Apparently the underlying categorization of emotions comes from Paul Ekman, who I had never heard of but is apparently a big deal in the psychology business. It probably doesn’t matter much.

Anyway, back to the talk! deWinter’s point was that the games that have been most successful at evoking the chick flick emotions — she gave Ico and Final Fantasy 7 as examples — do so primarily by the use of narrative devices from film — i.e. the cut scene — and by down playing the game elements. Perhaps, she suggested, people pursuing emotion in games should be pursuing the sorts of emotion that games are particularly suited for evoking, rather that applying a standard from film and literature. She also suggested that immersion in a story, which is often what is required for the chick flick emotions, might be different from immersion in a game.

Finally we had Moberly, who basically gave an entertaining rant against the reduction of humanistic game studies to the so-called debate between narratologist and ludologists, suggesting that there probably were none of the former species and that members of the latter were also rather thin on the ground and primarily occupied with making themselves look like an oppressed intellectual group by positing narratologists on every corner. (I don’t mean to be disparaging here, the case that this was a non-debate was very well made — and also incredibly funny.) His concern was that the fact that this debate dominates textbook and wikipedia entries on humanistic game studies was bad for the field because it marginalizes the more interesting work being done by actual humanist game scholars.

That’s long enough for one post. Part two to come.

(edit: Do media studies people not have web pages? I googled all three of these scholars without success in finding a linkable page.)